Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy dramaThe Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor Jen Trolio, and staff writer Alissa Wilkinson talk about “Darkroom,” the 10th episode of season five.
Somebody’s getting married... (Spoilers: It’s Philip and Elizabeth!)
Todd VanDerWerff: It's the wedding of the [20th] century!
After nearly two decades together, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have finally, officially tied the knot, at least in the eyes of the Russian Orthodox Church, which apparently still officiates Soviet weddings. (I will admit that my knowledge of Soviet weddings consists entirely of what I saw in this scene.) It's a beautiful, weirdly haunting sequence, which is immediately followed by the two realizing Pastor Tim believes what they've done to Paige is worse than rampant abuse.
(To give you a bit of context in how I watched this episode: FX sent “Darkroom” to critics with an email warning us not to spoil anything that happened after a certain time code until the episode had aired. That time code immediately preceded the wedding, and when I realized that was what the network didn't want spoiled, I laughed a lot. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that the major plot twist on The Americans would be a happy one.)
Anyway, "Darkroom" is another episode of the show turning up the burners underneath its simmering pot of water and letting us wonder if the damn thing is going to boil already. But as with most of the recent episodes that have done this, I liked it quite a bit. There's an elegance to how thoroughly this season has put us in the characters' heads, and I look forward to seeing how that all shakes out now that everything comes down to the Jennings family, as it probably should.
Also: Philip and Elizabeth's big mission of the year essentially boils down to getting some bullies to mock a teenage boy. Good work, everyone!
Alissa Wilkinson: I laughed at the wedding reveal too! I thought for sure someone important was going to die, maybe Pastor Tim. But he's still alive and kicking and worrying about Paige, as is everyone else. For now.
I said this earlier this season, but I feel like this show operates on the principle that everything, no matter how banal, could be a Chekhov's gun — that each element has the potential to come back in a big way later on, and that nothing is irrelevant. (That Chekhov himself was Russian is purely coincidental, probably.)
Most of the TV shows I love most, and the ones that are most rewarding on second viewing, make you slowly aware that you have to really pay attention to everything, because anything might come back later: The Leftovers, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and even Arrested Development do this.
The tricky thing about TV shows making everything significant — as opposed to, say, a play or a short story, like Chekhov would have written — is that there are a lot more strings to keep track of. I find myself working overtime to interpret everything in the story through that framework.
So that's one thing I thought about the wedding: What is it setting up? It sort of came out of left field, and I'm not entirely sure what Philip's thinking was behind it (though I have some hunches), but it was lovely to see a scene like that in this show. I'm wondering what it will mean when the Center discovers it, or if they even care.
Jen Trolio: I was also totally and completely thrown off by FX’s pre-episode guidance to not publicly discuss any part of what happened in basically the second half of the episode. It formed a false expectation in my brain; though I didn’t laugh the way you two did, I did have kind of a “Wait, that was it?” response to the wedding that really undercut the beauty of the scene.
Going back to it for a rewatch, I was really touched by the pre-nuptials scene in the car, where Philip and Elizabeth reminisce about getting their fake marriage license and Philip kind of playfully asks, “Wanna make it official?” Similarly, I loved hearing the couple’s real names, Mikhail and Nadezhda, during the ceremony — and then felt sad for them as they hid away their new, “real” wedding rings in a safe.
The Americans leans into its family versus ideology conflict
Jen: As for your question about what it’s setting up, Alissa, my early read lacks for “here’s how it comes back later” theories; for now, I’m viewing their marriage as a very symbolic development in The Americans’ ongoing theme of family versus ideology. Previously, they were essentially married for (and to) the cause. Now they’re very purposely married to each other. If they’re ultimately faced with the choice of family or country, I feel like we’ve just seen a big, tangible sign of which way both of them are gonna go.
That feeling was only cemented for me in the episode’s final scenes. FX’s spoiler warning aside, the “bigger” moment in the second half of “Darkroom,” for me, had to do with that literal darkroom scene at the Jennings house. I’ve always had a soft spot for the spy-show trope of having to develop your own clandestine photos because you can’t trust your film with some random employee at the drugstore photo lab down the street.
Paige paid lip service to that fear, once again showing she’s got a bit of a knack for spycraft, however reluctant. Just the fact that she was compelled to take the photos in the first place underscores how increasingly willingly she’s being drawn into the family business, even though her parents have told her more than once not to worry about Pastor Tim’s diary, to leave it alone.
More and more we’ve seen the Jenningses start to smudge and blur the line between family and ideology, as the two continue to fuse and evolve into something totally new. We saw this happen as Philip and Elizabeth tied the knot after all these years, and we saw it as Paige started to embrace the idea of getting Pastor Tim a job offer somewhere far away, before going all in and photographing his diary so that she could show it her parents.
For Philip and Elizabeth, their ideology will always be part of them, even though we’ve been witnessing them start to question it more and more. But it’s also what created their family, and now it literally can’t be separated from that family.
In the final scene of “Darkroom,” seeing all of Pastor Tim’s concerns about “P.J.” scrawled out on page after page, his words almost seemed to spur a revelation in Philip and Elizabeth. They and their daughter are all a little (or a lot) messed up, but they’re also all in this together (sorry, Henry; at least Paige is trying to look out for you). I think all three characters are starting to take a Three Musketeers, “all for one and one for all” approach.
Alissa: The entire concept of a “darkroom,” in which film is developed into photographs, is the linchpin for this episode as well as its title and concluding scene, and I thought that made for a fine metaphor for this season overall. When you develop film, there are a bunch of processes that have to be executed properly before the full picture reveals itself.
We watch (along with Paige) as Philip and Elizabeth expertly execute the steps required to develop Paige’s photos of Pastor Tim’s diary. And the whole episode is about people slowly engineering the pieces required to “develop” a larger story: Tuan working the kids to get to Pascha, the Jenningses being informed that they’ll have to stay on the honeypot trail possibly for years, and them wondering how they’ll put together Pastor Tim’s future — even the plot with Stan and his girlfriend still has Philip wondering if it’s a setup.
All this reminds me that there’s an actual clear historical expiration date on this plot. We get lost in the story sometimes, and forget it’s historical fiction rather than an alternate timeline.
Todd: Allow me to take a moment to point out that we have all complained about the spoiler warning sent out for an episode FX gladly allowed us to watch early on screener, because we are the worst kind of critics and do not acknowledge our screener privilege. May we be punished.
That said, I loved the darkroom sequence too, because it ties into something this season has fitfully kept in sight in every episode: When you can't tell the whole truth, how do you talk about the stuff that's troubling you? Seen one way, this is Paige doing her level best to make sure Pastor Tim's words are his undoing and that her parents don't need to know anything else from his diary. But seen another way, this is a desperate cry for help.
A similar situation is playing out with Oleg over in the USSR, where he's caught in the strange situation of knowing what government officials might be after him for, but also not being precisely sure how much they have on him, or if they suspect him of what he thinks they do. Could it be that he colluded a little too closely with Stan last season? Sure. It could also just be random chance. Like the Jennings family, he can't talk about what's really bothering him, because if he's ever open, he's doomed.
So which two characters are more or less having a great time of it right now? Henry (who sits out this episode) and Stan, who's got a great girlfriend, seems to have mostly let the Oleg thing burn itself out (for now at least), and is making some real progress on his current operation.
It worries me a bit that Stan is so far out of the central loop this season, though not because I think he's suddenly going to reveal that he's been onto Philip and Elizabeth all along. No, it feels to me like whatever other shoe will drop this season has something to do with what he's been up to all along. (Notice how little we know about his current operation in the Rezidentura — mostly that it's happening.) Curiouser and curiouser.
We still don’t have a great idea of a lot of what’s happening this season — possibly intentionally
Jen: Now that you say that about Stan, I’ve suddenly found myself wondering about how frequently Stan and the Jenningses — or at least Stan and Philip — are actually seeing each other these days. I can’t quite discern whether things are “normal” between them, especially in the wake of Paige and Matthew’s recent breakup, and that ambiguity, along with Philip’s nagging feeling that the Center is meddling with Stan, is putting all kinds of worst-case scenarios in my head about where Stan’s story arc is headed.
Stan is dating someone new and is obviously busy with this vague (to us) Rezidentura operation, and Philip and Elizabeth are traveling a lot “for work” (to Topeka, no less!). They’re also, as we were reminded last week, maintaining past missions like the one with Kimmy, hanging out with the Borozovs, fake-parenting Tuan, and real-parenting Paige and Henry. It’s easy to imagine that Philip and Stan might be struggling to keep up their regular racquetball game.
On the one hand, this makes perfect sense — friendships between adults ebb and flow all the time because life, kids, work gets in the way. On the other, Stan not being as much in the central mix of the season is making me feel a similar worry to you, Todd.
How much of Stan and the Jenningses’ relationship is work, how much of it is “play,” how much of is both? I have questions about what The Americans is choosing to show us and not show us at any given time, and while I agree that we probably aren’t headed for a “Stan knew all along!” situation, I’m unsettled nonetheless.
As more people on this show learn more things, and human emotions play a larger and larger role — especially with Philip specifically declaring to Elizabeth that “I don’t want Stan to end up like Martha” — there’s a lot of possibility for things to get very, very messy.
Alissa: In fact, the whole season has made me feel a little in the dark about what's going on — I keep getting the feeling that I might have missed something. And that makes me wonder if the Jenningses are missing anything too. They're not superheroes. They're just really good at their jobs.
But this season has been bent on showing their weaknesses, and I wonder what the wedding signifies in the midst of that. They're being kept in the dark by the Center on some level — they're starting to wonder, I think, how many levels — and that's mirrored by what Oleg is going through, and by what Gabriel told Martha as well. (Elizabeth even has to explain to Paige that they weren't lying to her, and I think that explanation gives Elizabeth pause.) The Center lies to its people. What have they taken for granted that might not, after all, be true?
This makes me think about the Topeka plot. Could it be there's more to it than even Elizabeth and Philip know?
Todd: One of the things Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields told me when I interviewed them after season four was that they don't look at, say, the marriage between Clark and Martha as "fake." Yes, on one level it's a sham that Philip perpetrates for work. But on another level, he's forced to be there and care about Martha, to make sure he's meeting her needs as best he can. And she does the same for him. That's a marriage!
Thus, The Americans is, on some level, about how the rituals of acting like something will make you that thing (like, say, an American). Tuan isn't actually Philip and Elizabeth's son, and he's even in on this particular ruse. But that doesn't stop the three of them from falling into the familiar parent-child relationship. Oleg acts like he hasn't done anything his countrymen would find suspect, in hopes that will paper over everything else. And Paige's entire life has become a delicate balancing act of pretending to still be a normal teenager, something that (to me at least) she seems to be getting better at.
This is what makes the final sections of "Darkroom" so moving to me. Things that were "fake" are being made "real," even though they don't have to be. No one would suggest that Philip and Elizabeth weren't "actually" married — indeed, the thought had never occurred to me. But the wedding serves as an important milestone for the both of them in a line of work where the border between reality and story is ever-shifting.
Similarly, the honesty the two share with Paige is possible entirely because the three of them have been able to be so open with each other. That final scene is a horrific revelation of just how screwed up all of these people are, yes, but on some other level, it's the proud parents greeting their teenage daughter at work and saying, "All of this will be yours someday!" (Good thing Philip and Elizabeth didn't get Paige involved in the travel agency; there's probably more of a future in spying.)
The deeper we get in season five, the more obvious it becomes that it's constructed to hide something from both the main characters and us. What that is, I have no idea. (My guess: Stan's business with the woman from the Rezidentura is designed to root out spies living in the US — which will somehow implicate Philip and Elizabeth.) But they also have no idea because they've become so consumed by the layers of falseness with which they've constructed multiple identities. At a certain point, there will be a crash.